Unkind Words: Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to WASP

By Irving Lewis Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
FLIPPITY FLOPPITY: THE SEMANTIC INVERSION AND TRANSMIGRATION OF SLURS

ANYONE WHO MUSES on the surprisingly subtle semantics of the informal and usually offensive names for ethnic groups is struck by how their meanings vary according to the social context in which they are used. Meanings change, sometimes radically, depending on the speaker, the hearer, the relation between them, and even on who is overhearing them. Ethnic labels also change with the times, or flip, from negative slurs to positive names. Less well appreciated is the fact that some slurs, keeping their offensiveness, detach from one target group, transmigrate, or hippity hop, and attach to another group. The word histories of a few names go through even more complicated gyrations.

The most striking, but simplest instances of semantic inversion have been when oppressed groups, notably blacks in this country, took infamous slurs and turned them into symbols of unification and ethnic pride. Long ago African Americans turned the hated word nigger, especially its nadir ba-ad nigger, into ironic terms of admiration. Folklorist Alan Dundes, tracing the semantic change of ba-ad nigger (in a comment in Brearley 1973), describes the subtle and rich process by which the antebellum ba-ad nigger, a black who in whites' eyes represented the lowest, meanest sort, was

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